Span finds his comfort zone in Washington
Center fielder looks for consistent offense in his second season with the Nats
VIERA, Fla. -- Recently, Nationals outfielder Denard Span called the 2014 season the most important of his career. He wants to show the Nats that he can be consistent at the plate for an entire season.
During the first half of last season, Span was scuffling at the plate, hitting .263 with no home runs and a .320 on-base percentage. After spending five years with the Twins, Span was simply trying to get used to his new team and new league. He was also trying to live up to the high expectations. Span was supposed to be the first true leadoff hitter in Nationals history. But he couldn't get anything going for a long period of time.
Teammate Jayson Werth knows what it's like to join a new team. He, too, had problems his first year with Washington.
"It takes a while to get acclimated, settle in and be yourself," Werth said. "During the second half of the season, he finally got comfortable and he took off. You saw the type of player he was."
Span was one of the best players on the Nationals during the second half, hitting .302. The post All-Star break performance eased his mind, but don't think he was satisfied with what he accomplished. Span simply wants to be the best at everything he does this year.
"I want to come out and remind some people a few things of what I'm capable of doing. I want to remind myself as well," Span said. "I know what I'm capable of doing. It's just a matter of doing it. ... Every time I step on to the field, I want people to recognize me. Flat out simple, I want to be the best."
The up-and-down season at the plate didn't affect his glove last season. Span was arguably the best in baseball -- he didn't make an error in 384 chances, but surprisingly didn't win a National League Gold Glove Award. That award went to Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez, who made five errors in 391 chances.
Span's best defensive game came on Aug. 14, when he made a game-ending catch in a 6-5 victory against the Giants.
On an 0-1 pitch with two outs in the ninth inning, Giants outfielder Hunter Pence surprised the Nats by pulling the ball to left-center field. Span, who was playing in right-center, had to go a long way and made a diving catch to end the game.
Span didn't know he had a shot to catch the ball until he was set to make the dive for it. Pence didn't know the catch was made by Span until he heard the crowd's thunderous applause. Span's grab was one of the best catches in Nationals history.
"I don't know if I've seen a better center fielder defensively," Werth said. "When he got things going with the bat, he got into his rhythm. His knack for putting an at-bat together, it's his own deal. He goes about the game his own way. It's fun to watch."
Asked why his defense never faltered last year, Span said, "I was just mentally strong. I've been through a lot. A lot of it stems from my mom [Wanda Wilson], watching her be a single mom. So I think that inner strength I watched from her carried over to me. I spent 5 1/2 years in the Minor Leagues. It was a roller-coaster ride for me. It wasn't always peaches and cream. I learned how to stay the course and trust in the process of putting in the work and the finished product, at the end of the day, will be what it is supposed to be."
Span is hoping the finished product is enough to stay with the Nationals for a long time. He could become a free agent after next year if the Nats don't pick up his $9 million option. Span said he would be open to a long-term deal.
"I haven't been here too long," Span said. "During my short time here, I enjoy being here. I enjoy the way they run the organization. This is a place I wouldn't mind spending a lot longer than this year or the year after that."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He can be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.